The "Second Great Awakening"


Discussion
April 17 through April 26

 
Read Johnson and Wilentz, The Kingdom of Mathias

Tuesday, April 17 Revivalism
Thursday, Arpil 19 Utopian Dreams

Tuesday, April 24 The Benevolent Empir:e Read Dorothea Dix
Thursday, April 26 Discuss Kingdom of Matthias
Begin final papers

The Jacksonian era saw an astonishing degree of religious experimentation and innovation. You should be reading about one example in Johnson and Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias.Hundreds of new religions and cults sprang up in this period, including the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Christian Scientists. There were also dozens of religious utopian communes, covering a wide variety of political and social ideas. For example, within a few miles of each other in upstate New York you could find the Shakers, who believed in total separation of the sexes at all times, and the Oneida collective, which preached sexual freedom and practiced "group marriage." There is a decent description of these two groups at this site. Religion inspired a wide range of extremely reform movements, including temperance crusade, anti-prostitution laws, Sabbath laws and evantually, abolition. Religious enthusaism transformed every aspect of American life in the Jacksonian period.

Historians generally assume that religious experimentation increases in response to changes in people's economic lives. The dynamic, transformative economy of the Jacksonian period profoundly altered people's sense of their relations to their neighbors, to their family, and to their employers and employees. Fundamental moral questions--what is a legitimate profit? What does it mean to be a "free" laborer? How much responsibility does an individual bear for his or her fate?-- pressed on citizens with a new urgency.

One manifestation of this urgency was revivalism. This description of a Kentucky revival from the 1810s come from James Finley, himself later a revivalist:

The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others on wagons...no sex nor color, class nor description, were exempted from the pervading influence of the spirit; even from the age of 8 months to 60 years...some of the people were singing, other praying, some crying for mercy...some struck with terror...trembling, weeping and crying out...fainting and swooning away...others surrounding them with melodious song. A peculiar sensation came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lips quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground.

 

The map below demonstrates some of this religious/moral reformation and its relation to the market. The Erie Canal brought the market economy to thousands of people, and with it both welcome and unwelcome changes. Cities in the region boomed--Rochester went from a sleepy mill town to America's fastest growing city in a few years after the Erie Canal's completion in 1826. The area, swept over by repeated waves of religious enthusiasm, became known as the "burned over district."

The "burned over district" produced or nurtured the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Christian Scientists, the Shakers, the Oneida Collective, the Spiritualist movement, and a wide range of other experimental, visionary communities, including Fourierist socialist collectives and feminist "dress reform." Extremely odd "cults" like the Kingdom of Matthias competed for an audience with more respectable evangelical protestant movements like methodism.

 

"The Benevolent Empire"


The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, 1836

Evangelicals showed their greatest influence in the area of moral reform. Energized by conversion, protestants began attacking "social evils" like drinking, prostitution, and violation of the Sabbath. Historians temper their accounts of these reform efforts by pointing out that they often came at the initiative of a middle class which wanted tractable, sober, pious, orderly and obedient workers--in other words, that this Christianity often coincided with their economic self interest. This interest shows up especially clearly in "humanitarian" movements to reform prisons, asylums and schools. The Eastern State Penitentiary, shown above, exerted a worldwide influence with its determinatiuon to turn prisoners into disciplined citizens who fully accept middle class values. Reformers like Dorothea Dix led the way towards a less physically copercive model of treatment of the insane. The moral reforms of the Jacksonian period, interestingly, were often led by women. Historians have argued, in fact, that evangelicalism should be understood partly as a social movement through which women asserted new, "modern" forms of social influence. The modern feminist movement itself, in fact, finds its origins in the intersection of evangelicalism and religion. The essay from Dix included here gives a good example of the language middle class women used to assert themselves.

Unmistakably, in the Jacksonian era evangelicals led the drive towards abolition, as this link suggests. Prominent ministers like Charles Grandison Finney, later president of Oberlin College, profoundly altered the course of the nineteenth century.